Regret is not a word usually associated with Yang Chen, who recently called time on his illustrious playing career. But the former Chinese international striker, whose impish grin disarms even his critics, still laments his near-miss against Turkey in China's debut in the FIFA World Cup™, at Korea/Japan 2002.
"We had crashed out after opening losses to Costa Rica and Brazil, so the encounter with Turkey was the last chance to show our progress in front of the watching world," recalled Yang in a recent exclusive interview with FIFA.com. "As tournament first-timers, we had set a realistic goal - to score a goal at least, so that we wouldn't pack our bags for home empty-handed, so to speak."
The game didn't, however, go to plan for the Chinese, as they went two goals down after only nine minutes. Despite the disappointing start, Yang Chen and Co. continued to press hard for their first goal, and their best chance came in the 28th minute. Midfielder Zhao Junzhe's accurate pass sent Hao Haidong racing clear down the left; Hao flicked in a centre, and the first one to it was an onrushing Yang Chen, who unleashed a powerful drive which cannoned off the left-hand upright.
"Even today, I would say it was a perfectly-taken shot, and it was just bad luck that it didn't go in," said the 34-year-old. "What a pity, that I came so close to scoring what would have been China's first World Cup goal!"
The near-miss, however, would do little to tarnish his stellar image among his adoring Chinese fans.
Yang started his professional career with Beijing Guoan in 1994, where his uncanny finishing ability, coupled with his good looks, soon made him the apple of the local fans' eyes. When he made a high-profile transfer to Bundesliga side Eintracht Frankfurt in 1998, he became a trail-blazer for all Chinese players who were looking for a move overseas.
He made a bright start in his first season with Frankfurt, during which he scored eight goals, and helped his side to avoid relegation. His excellent displays in the Bundesliga didn't go unnoticed, as he was called up to the national team by Englishman Bob Houghton later the same year.
He retained his place when Bora Milutinovic took over in 2000, figuring prominently in China's qualifying campaign for Korea/Japan 2002. He is still best remembered for scoring the second goal against Indonesia in a crucial qualifier on 13 May, 2001, a goal which changed the tide of the game.
"We were one goal down after the first half, against our expectations, and my shoulder was injured. But Milutinovic showed what a great coach he was, because he stayed calm and encouraged us to strike back in the second half. Well, we carried out his instructions; we scored five times in the second half!"
Yang Chen was substituted after heading China into a 2-1 lead, and the medical examination after the match showed that one of his bones was ruptured.
Shortly after his recovery, Yang Chen went on to impress with China in the ensuing Asian qualifying final round, which saw him busy juggling club and country commitments.
"Traveling between Europe and different parts of Asia required not only time, but also physical endurance," he recalled. "I remember I once played three matches within a week, a Bundesliga match sandwiched by two World Cup qualifiers."
But when China booked their maiden appearance at the global showpiece, Yang Chen felt that all his efforts had paid off. " ."
For a football player, nothing can match reaching the World Cup
Yang Chen had just finished an AFC Coaching course when FIFA.com caught up with him, and he was unequivocal about his intention of being a coach in the near future.
"I started my preparation years ago, when I played with Shen Jianlibao," he explained. "I completed my C and B courses then, and if I pass the A course this time, I will have my coaching license."
Talking of China's failed qualifying campaign for South Africa 2010, Yang pointed out that the country's football development still required plenty of progress to be made at the coaching level.
"Milutinoivic took us to our first World Cup because he was a qualified coach, and he proved particularly experienced in getting the team mentally strong. We have paid too often for our lack of experience and our psychological frailty, and the lessons must be learned if we are to progress."
And has he thought of taking the national reins one day? "Maybe. For now I am just a pupil waiting for my first coaching task, though," he concluded with his trademark grin.